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Is The Age Of Individualism Coming To An End?

Michael Foley says that perhaps we are all becoming more sociable.

The revelation came in the popcorn queue of a multiplex. Looking around at the posters, it suddenly occurred to me that movie heroes used to be singular – the lone private eye walking down those mean streets, or the lone stranger riding down those main streets – but now the lone hero has been largely replaced by the buddy pair or the team. Even those ultimate individuals, the superheroes, now prefer to fight evil in groups. This idea connected in my mind with many other cultural developments to suggest that the age of individualism, which seemed so permanent, may instead be temporary, an overreaction against constraint and repression that is now correcting itself.

Individualism, the idea that individual freedom and rights are paramount, has become so culturally entrenched that it seems like a universal, absolute and eternal truth. In fact the idea is not universal but largely confined to the West; not absolute but a contingent development; and far from being eternal, may be losing its appeal.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
An icon of Romantic individualism: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

The Growth of Individualism

The creation myth of individualism is that in Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment Europe a few courageous champions of reason broke the shackles of religious repression and set the individual free to find, express, and fulfil a true self. But the development of individualism began much earlier, and was much more gradual and complex. Many factors, religious and material as well as intellectual, contributed. Along with the Enlightenment’s intellectual demand for liberty, the growth of commerce created a middle class of merchants, prosperous farmers and urban craftsmen who believed in private property and unhindered individual wealth accumulation. So individualism was a partnership of ideas and business such as contemporary universities dream of. But underlying both factors in this revolutionary development was Christianity’s even more revolutionary idea – a shocking novelty in the classical world – that all human beings are of equal value. This had never occurred to philosophers, and, given the hunger of Homo sapiens for hierarchy and distinction, perhaps need never have occurred to anyone. But eventually the demand for political and personal liberty turned a founding belief of the Church against the Church, a development pithily summarised by historian Larry Siedentop’s remark that “Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world.”

In the Nineteenth Century the commercial and intellectual strands of individualism separated into capitalist entrepreneurism and Romantic individualism, the latter being a rejection of the materialist herd in favour of solitary communing with sublime nature on rugged coastlines and mountain tops. At the end of the Nineteenth and the first half of the Twentieth Centuries, Romanticism morphed into bohemian individualism, which recolonised the city – or a limited area of it – as a refuge from the morals, conventions and conformities of bourgeois society.

All these overlapping and intermingling developments remained elitist, influencing mostly artists, intellectuals and political radicals, until, at the end of the 1960s, they combined in a youth mass culture that spread around the world to produce expressive individualism, which added to the rejection of authority and conformity the need to ‘discover your true self’ and ‘do your own thing’.

This has been the prevailing mood of recent times: the high point of individualism was probably the 1970s and 80s. Scientific and political theories, while asserting themselves to be timeless, objective truths, usually reflect the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age. Just so, at its height, individualism was ratified by two influential theories. The first was neo-Darwinism in biology, which interpreted evolution as a competition for survival won by the strongest and/or most cunning individuals; and the second, neo-liberalism in economics, which drew on the first to argue that markets should be free to develop, like nature, in an unhindered competition between individuals.

The Decline of Individualism

But the zeitgeist has changed and both these theories have now been challenged. Many evolutionary theorists argue that cooperation is as important for survival as competition, if not more so; and many political theorists argue that the free market has produced a widening inequality that is damaging to the winners as well as to the losers. Individualism has also been undermined at its very source by neuroscientists who claim that the individual’s sense of a unitary self is an illusion created by the brain to provide the comfort of stability and continuity. So Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that there is no such thing as society has been matched by the opposite claim that there is no such thing as the individual. The self is not an essence to be discovered but an ongoing process of interaction with the environment, and according to the theory of ‘extended mind’ is at least partly in the environment. Philosophers such as Charles Taylor support this idea by arguing that the most important environmental influence is other people, and that personal identity is developed not so much by looking inwards to find a true self, as in either acceptance of or resistance to the identities others attempt to impose. “We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. And even when we outgrow some of the latter – our parents, for instance – and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live” (from The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor, 1992).

Even physics, which believes itself to be the most objective of disciplines, has altered its theories on the nature of reality to suit the changing mood. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries an atomistic approach understood reality as consisting of elementary particles that created relations with each other, but by the end of the Twentieth and the start of the Twenty-First this had completely reversed to an interpretation of reality as a field, a swarm of continuous interactive processes that create and destroy particles. Now the relations are often believed to create the particles rather than the other way round. The theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli recently wrote: “There is no reality except in the relations between physical systems. It isn’t things that enter into relations but, rather, relations that ground the notion of ‘thing’.” (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, Carlo Rovelli, 2016). This is Taylor’s view of individuals applied to elementary particles.

The New Interconnectivity

The decline of individualism is evident in practice as well as theory, in the proliferation of social networks, urban tribes, friendship groups, festivals (still spreading faster than Japanese knotweed), cosplay and gaming conventions, and all kinds of group activity including group dancing, singing in choirs, team games and themed parties. With the fashion for communal tables and benches and sharing plates, the trend is apparent even in restaurants. Even reading, that most quintessentially solitary practice, has become a communal endeavour, in reading groups. There is also evidence from religion, with the growing popularity of Pentecostal churches, which reduce the emphasis on individual religious observance and instead encourage group participation in singing and dancing.

In the politics of both right and left there has been an even more dramatic rejection of the assumption that democracy is based on the liberal ideology of individual rights. The rise of right-wing populism has been based on a renewed belief in nationalism, and is expressed in mass rallies that provide the same reassurance of belonging as a congregation of ecstatic believers, while on the left there is a new form of humorous group anarchism. In his 2008 book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics and Resistance the philosopher Simon Critchley writes, “In my view, anarchism – what we might call ‘actually existing anarchism’ – is a powerfully refreshing and remotivating response to the drift and demotivation of liberal democracy. In particular… it is the carnivalesque humour of anarchist groups and their tactics of ‘non-violent warfare’ that have led to the creation of a new language of civil disobedience and a recovery of the notion of direct democracy.” Critchley specifically rejects an individualist anarchism for something more social: “The conception of anarchism that I seek to defend … is not so much organised around freedom as responsibility.”

Here Critchley identifies the problem that has caused individualism to lose its allure. Personal freedom, the essential feature of individualism, is not the universal gift it appeared to be. Back in the heady Sixties and Seventies, the era of popular demands for liberation and rights, it seemed that being free was all that was needed to enjoy a fulfilling life. But, as the populists have noted, full freedom is available only to the few who can afford it. And many of these fortunate few have discovered that total freedom is not liberation but a new kind of burden. Infinite choice is thrilling in theory but exhausting in practice, requiring every decision to be worked out from first principles, often by those without principles. And the thrilling possibility of refusing obligation and commitment in order to live by and for one’s self has also turned out to be less than fulfilling.

The Seeds of Rage

The evidence was already there in the lives of the founding fathers of individualism: Baudelaire (1821-67), the most influential modern poet; Flaubert (1821-80), the most influential modern novelist; and Nietzsche (1844-1900), the most influential modern thinker. All three lived alone, were vehement in their insistence on solitude and freedom, their rejection of marriage and democracy, and their contempt for what they described as ‘the common herd’. As Flaubert once put it: “I have built myself a tower and let the waves of shit beat at its base.”

The free solitary life should have provided peaks of creative exaltation on a plateau of serenity, but it seems instead to have provoked rage. The three seminal individualists were constantly seething. Nietzsche, the most detached, living alone in Turin, with no social life whatever, was also the angriest, blaming all his problems on his home nation and upbringing, writing abusive letters to his family and friends, quarrelling with his loyal publisher, and demanding to have the Kaiser publicly executed.

The problem is that intellectual exaltation encourages contempt for the people at the base of the tower and a growing certainty in the superiority of one’s own convictions, which the world in its stubborn stupidity fails even to acknowledge, much less accept. The result is rage.

A more recent example of this syndrome is the poet Philip Larkin, who refused to commit to any of his lovers or to engage in any social activity that did not suit him. He lived alone and for himself alone, yet described himself in later life as ‘boiling with rage’. The irony is that Larkin protected his freedom to have time to write, but succeeded so well he had nothing to say and dried up.

Calle de Preciados
Calle de Preciados © Manolo Gomez 2008

The Sense of Change

To preserve sanity it seems to be necessary to keep a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others. The constraints of traditional society were impossibly binding, but the opposite extreme of refusing all constraint has not been the answer. Once we suffocated in the prison of conformity, then we drowned in the ocean of choice.

Nietzsche understood the necessity of maintaining dualities of every kind, but especially between Apollo, the symbol of social order and limit, and Dionysus, the symbol of freedom and intoxication. Keeping contradictory forces in tension can be a source of strength:

“Let us suppose a man who deemed it impossible to resolve this contradiction by destroying the one and completely unleashing the other power; then, the only thing remaining to him would be to make such a great edifice out of himself that both powers can inhabit it, even if at opposite ends; between which are sheltered conciliatory powers provided with the dominant strength to settle, if need be, any quarrels that break out.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, Section 5).

Nietzsche failed to take his own advice, but there now seems to be an unconscious rebalancing between individualism and social life, which is a rejection of the excesses of freedom as well as of traditional conformity. The key seems to be involvement in new types of group that are chosen rather than imposed, transient rather than lasting, and informal rather than requiring official membership.

As with many forms of social change, the waning of individualism provides reasons to be fearful – the rise of populism and nationalism – as well as reasons for hope – the more benign small-group ethos. And it effects most of us, often unconsciously. I realise that I’m too much of a Twentieth-Century individualist to join any organised group, but at least I’ve come down from the tower to the street and the urban crowd – no longer the ‘common herd’ despised by Baudelaire, Flaubert and Nietzsche, but a group of sorts, albeit the most fluid and transient, and offering a sense of belonging, albeit the most tenuous. As well as the proliferation of new group activities there has been a steady proliferation of new public spaces where people can see and be seen – the communal open-plan eating areas of malls; the outdoor tables colonising pavements and squares; and the continuing spread of coffee shops. In the mode of Baudelaire, Flaubert and Nietzsche I have previously interpreted this as evidence of narcissistic attention-seeking. But it is also possible to see it as a new form of togetherness, a new form of community – a paradoxical community of strangers. There is something oddly fulfilling in looking on as people, mysterious, unknowable and seething with deep forces and passions, go about their urgent but inscrutable business. It is the urban equivalent of watching the sea.

© Michael Foley 2017

Michael Foley has published novels, poetry and non-fiction books, most recently Isn’t This Fun? Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves (Simon & Schuster 2016). His website is michael-foley.net.

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